“The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.” – Gregory Boyle, S.J.
I don’t know many things for sure. Most days, I feel like I am a just flopping around, unmoored in a sea of mystery – which is sometimes comforting (a route to surrender and release of control to God) and sometimes disconcerting (like when your 16-year-old is pushing every button and belief you thought you held sacred).
For my entire life, I have trusted in the collective wisdom of our Church, and I still do…I really do. I believe that we can only come to the fullness of truth through genuine dialogue and communion with one another. We are designed for collaboration. We are ONE, as Jesus prayed us to be (whether we recognize this reality or not). All of creation is inextricably connected – and we human beings are, of course, part of this miracle of creation.
But, I discovered anew at a funeral that I attended just before the pandemic that I also strongly believe and trust in the indispensable role and importance of faithful dissent within our church family – the necessity voicing our disagreement consistently and lovingly, not to destroy our unity but in order to maintain it. Faithfully speaking truth to power is absolutely essential to our growth, health and evolution as a species and a community of faith. Jesus showed us by example (to his death) that faithful dissent is simply part of our design.
So, here is what happened. A while back I attended THE most beautiful funeral I have ever experienced. We celebrated the life of an extraordinary young man who had extreme autism. His parents are two of the most exceptional human beings, and faithful Catholics, I have ever had the great honor to know. Truly, they are living saints in my humble opinion. The funeral was packed – standing room only – and we prayed, cried, laughed, and thanked God together for the brilliant light and life that this young man brought to all who knew him. His three siblings gave the most remarkable eulogies I’ve ever heard. It was a profound celebration. And then….
The time for the reception of Eucharist arrived and the priest said “Now is the the time for holy communion. Those of you who are Catholic are invited to come and receive the holy Eucharist. Those of you who are not Catholic please sit down and stay in your seat.” As I heard those words, I felt my pulse begin to race. We had just spent an hour together listening and celebrating the loving, accepting, inviting, open spirit of this amazing young man – in Jesus’ name – who was also loving, accepting, inviting, open and amazing – and just as the souffle of this magnificent feast of inclusion was coming to its epoch – we Catholics (on occasion, not always) decide with pronouncements such as this to throw a bucket of cold water all over the table and all those gathered around it that ruins the entire meal. I couldn’t help it; I started to weep.
As I said, I’m not sure of many things. But I AM sure of one thing, without a doubt in my heart and mind. I am absolutely sure that the Jesus who I have come to know, love, serve and follow would never, ever exclude anyone from coming to receive his body, blood, life – from the nourishment he died to give us. It was like we invited all these hungry people to the dinner table but then right at the time when everyone’s plate was to be filled to heaping we said “Ah ah ah (wagging our finger back and forth) – none for you! You are not one of us! We know you are hungry and you can sit at the table – but you are not permitted to eat. You, today, will leave hungry.”
I didn’t plan to say anything. The church was packed, and it was an enormous church, so, I was sure that the pastor, who truly gave such a marvelous homily and presided over a difficult funeral with such grace, genuine love and humor, would be swamped with people wanting to rightfully praise his extraordinary giftedness and generosity. But, low and behold, even though I was in the very back of this huge church, no where even remotely near the sacristy, and I hadn’t moved an inch since the funeral had ended, there, coming right down the aisle to my right was the priest! And not only did he come down the aisle but he was stopped by a choir member (for what seemed like an hour) directly in front of me – so he was literally not even one step from me. I heard in my heart “All you have to do is reach out your hand and briefly, lovingly tell him how you feel.” And so I did. I didn’t even need to take a step – I just reached out my hand and touched his shoulder, and he turned around.
I began by thanking him for leading and presiding over the most beautiful funeral I have ever attended and some other niceties. Then I reached down into my gut, said a little “Hail Mary” for courage, and began to tell him about the deep pain I felt when he made the pronouncement at the time of communion that only some of us were permitted to eat. He listened and insisted that I must “think rationally, not emotionally. We need to protect the Eucharist!” I asked him “What do we need to protect God from? God’s own creation – God’s own children?” And he said “We must demand respect. We find hosts stuck in our hymnals because people don’t know what to do.” And I said, “I hear you, but can’t we simply instruct people to ‘eat’ as easy as instruct them to ‘sit down’? Wouldn’t it be better to error on the side of compassion than safety, lest anyone feel excluded and leave church hungry and hurt? Wasn’t Jesus murdered for how and with whom he dined – for breaking the rules by breaking bread with the outcasts and the so called ‘sinners?’ Aren’t we called to be in solidarity with those on the margins? Isn’t that the essential teaching of this life-giving meal that Jesus instituted and gifted to us? If not, what in the heck are we doing here!?!?” And he repeated back to me the Church’s teaching, with which I am very familiar. I just nodded and listened.
About five minutes later we ended the conversation with a hug. I told him I had nothing but love for him, which wasn’t a lie. I deeply appreciated all his gifts that were obvious that morning and his willingness to engage and dialogue with me – there is no doubt in my mind that he is a loving, dedicated servant of God. He even said he loved me too – even though he had just met me and, I was, without a doubt, not what he was hoping for after what I’m sure was a long, hard few days of ministry.
As Rachel Held-Evans book Searching for Sunday so eloquently writes “Though I have never been a part of a church that hosts an open table…I don’t know exactly how Jesus is present in the bread and wine, but I believe Jesus is present, so it seems counter-intuitive to tell people they have to wait and meet him someplace else before they meet him at the table. If people are hungry, let them come and eat. If they are thirsty, let them come and drink. It’s not my table anyway. It’s not my denomination’s table or my church’s table. It’s Christ’s table.”
Jesus told the parable about a man who prepared a banquet and invited many guests, and when they declined because they were too busy, the man instructed his servant to “go into the streets and alleyways in town and bring back the poor, the hungry, the lonely.” The servant did, but there was still room at the table, so the man then said “go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come, so that my house will be full!” (Luke 14:12-23). Our Catholic house and table is hemorrhaging people – people who are leaving rightfully because they do not feel welcome anymore. They have a sensus fidelium that something is drastically off in the way in which we are following Christ’s instructions, and I think they are spot on. I’m with the marginalized on this one. There is no convincing me that this is what Jesus intended on the evening before he died and prayed “Father, may they be ONE.”
The young man who we buried that day knew this truth – and certainly knows it even better now that he is in the welcoming, unconditional embrace of our loving creator. The priest, I think knows too that God is ALL IN – without boundary or breaking point. He could have never communicated such great love that morning without having experienced it himself. We can’t give what we have not received. In short, I would bet the farm that the priest knew exactly why I was crying and knows that we have no need to withhold or protect God from the bellies of God’s beloved children – who come in every shape, size, color, denomination, sexual preference, gender, etc.
Just this week even Pope Francis himself practiced a little dissent, ruffling a few feathers when he disagreed with many of his fellow leaders in saying “I have never denied Communion to anyone” and called on our church leaders to be pastors not politicians (I also heard this week that Pope Francis once gave Eucharist to a Jewish person and told him/her not to worry for it was a ‘Jewish host.’).
I don’t know much, but THIS I know. Exclusion is NOT of God. God is WAAAAY bigger and more inclusive than we recognize or give God credit for. God is AT LEAST as inclusive as the most accepting among us lowly human beings, don’t you think? And who among us would ever dare to invite a hungry person to dinner, fill our plates and eat right in front of him or her without giving them any food? Not one of us. Not…a…one.
**** Dutiful disclaimer – this is an opinion piece and (sadly) not official church teaching. However, the Pope was recently quoted as saying “No, I have never denied the Eucharist to anyone; to anyone! I don’t know if someone came to me under these conditions, but I have never refused them the Eucharist, since the time I was a priest.” – AND according to John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint paragraph 46 it DOES read: “It is a source of joy to note that Catholic ministers are able, in certain particular cases, to administer the Sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance and Anointing of the Sick to Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church but who greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes with regard to these sacraments. Conversely, in specific cases and in particular circumstances, Catholics too can request these same sacraments from ministers of Churches in which these sacraments are valid. The conditions for such reciprocal reception have been laid down in specific norms; for the sake of furthering ecumenism these norms must be respected.
If you prefer to listen rather than read this post, here is an audio recording:
For more info on the history and importance of faithful dissent in the Catholic Church visit https://www.uscatholic.org/church/2008/07/catholic-dissent-when-wrong-turns-out-be-right.
You may also read a similar piece I wrote for our church bulletin here: https://crazycatholicquestions.blogspot.com/2019/09/crazy-catholic-question-178-exclusion.html